by Michael Brenner on 25 Jan 2024 0 Comment

Yemen’s Houthis are now in the headlines. Predictably, though, the coverage invariably is ahistorical, context-free and tendentious. I have yet to see any reporting of the United States’ role as a co-belligerent in the Saudi-led air campaign /blockade that over 8 years has resulted in a few hundred thousand dead Yemenis - the majority children (when we add the victims of starvation and disease) in the MSM - or, for that matter, in the not so mainstream.




-       Deaths: 380,000 UN Estimate

-       70% children under 5 (275,000)

-       150,000+ from violence (2014–2021) UN

-       85,000 children died from starvation (2015–2018) Save the Children

-       2.3 million children acutely malnourished and nearly 400,000 children under five at imminent risk of death. (2016–2021) [1] UNICEF, WHO

-       ·24.600+ killed by air raids

-       4 million people (1.4 mil. Children) cumulatively displaced (2015–2020)


What benighted country is this?


It is not Palestine. Nor Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan. It is YEMEN – ‘Land of Atrocity Forgotten.’


The Yemeni civil war is the underlying cause – its dimensions and intensity magnified multifold by the intervention of Saudi Arabia (+ its Gulf allies) with the crucial support and participation of the United States. The internal political crisis became violent early in 2015. At first, it pitted the dominant Sunni government (then led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi) against the long-distressed Houthis – a heterodox Shi’ite sect who occupy a large swath of the country’s north.


Decisive military success by the Houthis, who occupied the capital Sana’a and advanced on Aden, forced the hand of Riyadh’s new de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. He was the active sponsor of accommodating Sunni factions, instigating their attempt to marginalize the Houthis as part of the strategic plan to turn Yemen into a Saudi protectorate. The Saudis moved swiftly to come to the Hadi forces’ aid: organizing an expeditionary force composed of its allies and launching a massive, indiscriminate air campaign. From the outset, they targeted civilian as well as military sites, e.g. refugee camps and food storages. The results are denotated above.[2]


President Barack Obama immediately came down heavily on the side of the Saudis and their auxiliaries. He officially designated the Houthis as a ‘terrorist organization’ under US law. The American role was decisive. The United States Air Force provided in-flight refuelling for Saudi strike aircraft which, otherwise, lacked the range to reach their Yemeni targets. The Obama administration also supplied tactical intelligence. In January 2016, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister stated that US (and UK) military officials were in the command-and-control centre responsible for the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen. They helped formulate the list of targets but were not involved in the selection of individual targets, he said.


Furthermore, the United States gave its backing to the blockade of Houthi areas. Nominally intended to prevent arms from reaching the Houthis, it actually was rapidly expanded to interdict the shipping – by sea or air – of foodstuffs, medical supplies, replacement parts, etc. The Saudi-led coalition went so far as to disrupt/obstruct the provision of humanitarian aid from UN agencies and NGOs. In other words, the aim was to inflict such severe punishment on the civilian population as to force the Houthis to yield – a prototype for what the Israelis have done in Gaza. Finally, Obama revved up arms sales to Saudi Arabia for it to continue its war on the Houthis.


The consequence has been that the largest percentage of the casualties noted above, by far, were suffered by the Houthi population – according to UN and other independent sources.


The blunt truth is that the murderous onslaught against the Houthis could not have been prosecuted without the direct participation of the Obama administration. Bombing would have been impossible - except late in the day when the Saudis developed their own capacity to conduct it without technical assistance; the blockade would have been less effective; and the cost /benefit balance sheet for Riyadh and its allies would have pointed clearly toward avoidance of the all-out military campaign and a negotiated political settlement. At worst, Yemen would have seen low-intensity fighting between the two local antagonists.


The inescapable conclusion is that the United States was an ACCOMPLICE (co-belligerent) in war crimes in Yemen – while in Gaza it is an ACCESSORY.




What moved Obama and his team to commit itself to such an enterprise?


-       No direct security interests were at stake. The Houthis had in no way endangered American well-being or place in the Middle East. The two parties barely had any contact whatsoever.


-       Terrorism: al-Qaeda had used its scattered cells in Yemen to strike at American targets in the region – the attack on SS Cole in the port of Aden being the outstanding example. However, those elements were resident in government-held southern regions – not in the Houthi lands. Before, during and since the civil war, the US has carried out raids and targeted assassinations against them. That campaign has been greatly complicated by the expansion of al-Qaeda presence in the country thanks to the distractions of civil strife and political fragmentation. At one point, they took control of an entire southeastern governate. Moreover, the Hadi government for a time saw it as expedient to strike a deal with al-Qaeda leaders: a de facto truce in exchange for al-Qaeda directing its military operations against the Houthis. In effect, a parallel to the American deal with al-Qaeda (aka al-Nusra) in Syria which continues to this day.[3]


-       Countering Iran. The widely held claim that the Houthis act as a proxy for the mullahs’ regime in Teheran is totally false. Historically, there has been virtually no connection between the Houthis and Iran – militarily, politically, economically or ideologically. The Houthis’ version of Islam places them on the Shi’ite side of the Sunni /Shi’ite divide. However, their peculiar brand of Islam always has been viewed as heterodox by the religious authorities of Iraq and Iran, who scorned their Houthi counterparts.[4] Their current collaboration, begun over the course of the civil war, is entirely expedient. It is an instrumental means to convergent but independent ends. Teheran provides arms and other forms of tangible assistance in exchange for the Houthis serving as a stone in the shoe of their Saudi enemy. (An avowed enemy until the recent modus vivendi brokered by China). Iran did figure in the strategic picture insofar as it is a hovering presence shadowing every aspect of regional politics.


-       The actual reason for the United States’ decision to interject itself in the war on the Houthis is simple. Obama wanted to ingratiate himself with the KAS’ new, mercurial ruler Mohammed bin Salman. Thereby, he hoped to solidify the multiform partnership between Washington and Riyadh. Foremost in the minds of the Obama people was Saudi Arabia’s key role as a counterweight to what they saw as a hostile, threatening Iran. At the time, Washington was preoccupied – perhaps obsessed – with an Iran they saw as the source of nearly all that troubled the US in the Middle East. That outlook, and attendant strategy, was adopted by Trump and his foreign policy associates. It has manifestly failed. MBS now thumbs his nose at the US – to the extremity of insulting Tony Blinken and ignoring Biden’s entreaties over Gaza. Even before October 7, Saudi Arabia took the historic step of joining the BRICS (in the same cohort as Iran) and collaborating with Russia in undercutting the dollar’s central role as the transaction currency in world oil commerce.


-       There is another contextual element to take into account when searching for an explanation. 2015 was a year when Obama was engaging the country in multiple high-stakes ventures abroad. They included: organizing the coup in Kiev as a critical step in the plan to cage in Russia; up to its waist in Syria in the futile effort to unseat Assad; dispatching forces back into Iraq to fight the Islamic State; taking one last fling at saving Afghanistan from the Taliban; interfering in Pakistani politics to find a pliable leader who would crack down on all cross-border activity; weaving a mesh of bases across the Sahel to combat AQNA (al-Qaeda in North Africa) revamping America’s strategic deterrent while building an anti-ballistic missile network in both Europe and Asia. Contrary to the cultivated image of the Obama administration as judicious, restrained and tempered in its external relations, the US was feeling its oats – dedicated to ensuring that it remained the global Number 1 indefinitely and ready to use all its levers of influence to shape the world according to its own design. Hence, the swiftness with which Washington joined in the Saudi onslaught against the Yemeni Houthis.


-       America’s complicity in crimes against humanity in Yemen turns out to be entirely gratuitous. We find it easy to neglect and then ignore, this infamy. The Yemenis cannot. That callous truth bodes ill for the Palestinians.




1] 77.7% of cholera cases (339,061 of 436,625) and 80.7% of deaths from cholera (1,545 of 1,915) occurred in Houthi-controlled governorates, compared to 15.4% of cases and 10.4% of deaths in government-controlled governorates, since Houthi-controlled areas have been disproportionately affected by the conflict, which has created conditions conducive to the spread of cholera.

2] Saudi Arabia began a military intervention alongside eight other Arab states, bombing positions throughout Sana’a. In a joint statement, the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (with the exception of Oman) said they decided to intervene against the Houthis in Yemen at the request of Hadi’s government. King Salman of Saudi Arabia declared the Royal Saudi Air Force to be in full control of Yemeni airspace within hours of the operation beginning. At first, the strikes concentrated on the Houthis operational forces. Soon, they spread to all infrastructure, followed soon after by unrestricted attacks on civilian sites. They continued unabated for 7 years.

3] Al-Nusra, along with its jihadist allies and other dependent groups, now occupies Syria’s rich Idlib province under Turkish protection, with Washington’s acquiescence. In return for this boon, they serve their liege Erdogan by making themselves available for his ventures in Libya, Azerbaijan and elsewhere.

4] The Zaydi branch of Islam, known as the Fivers, is a sect almost exclusively prevalent in Yemen, making it a distinctive feature of the religion in Yemen. The Zaydis belong to a sect of Shia Islam that traces its ancestry back to eponym Zayd ibn Ali, the great-grandson of Ali Shia first Imam and Zayd ibn Ali who rebelled against Umayyad government in 740 CE after the death of Husayn ibn Ali at Karbala. The first Zaydi Imam in Yemen, Yahya b. al-Husayn (d.911), made a largely successful effort to establish the Zaydi brand of Islam, and to fix his rule over the tribes in the north of Yemen.


Comment from a former very senior Intelligence official whose lifelong area of expertise is the Middle East:

“There were no links between Iran and the Houthis (mainly Zaydis) before the upheavals of 2011 and the fall of Ali Abdallah Saleh. It’s only when it appeared that KSA could take advantage of the Yemeni turmoil to control the country using AQPA in the south and chiefs of great Sunni tribes in the North that they remembered that there were some more or less Shi’ites (regularly oppressed by the Sunnis for centuries) near the Saudi border that could be usefully instrumentalized to oppose the Saudi initiative.”

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